Using PGP Encryption in 2021

So, I decided to bolster my security this year, and invest in a YubiKey. One of its less obvious features is OpenPGP support; this means as well as U2F and TOPT authentication, you can use it for all kinds of cryptographic possibilities. Those familiar with SmartCards will probably already be familiar with what they can do, and that is the important point. The YubiKey is also an OpenPGP Smartcard.


If you're time poor, you might not have time to set up PGP properly, so as a first step consider using Signal and ProtonMail (they are both secure and free). At least then you can be confident you are set up to communicate via encrypted channels.

Your motivation to set up PGP keys will most likely depend on need such as being a journalist, wanting to sign your code or perhaps you are just a curious geek. It seems today few people are using PGP encrypted e-mail, and of those that are, probably most are using services like ProtonMail which is a good step, but doesn't let you use your own master key without uploading it*, which complicates things if you require the highest level of security.

* It will be stored encrypted with your password though. So they never have access to it. Keeping your certification key off the internet entirely is possibly overkill for most users.

That being said – I think if you are willing to try, the more private communications there are in the wild, the less they stick out – so you help to mitigate mass surveillance operations, and you have secure channels of communication ready, should the need ever arise (which often becomes much more difficult to do safely / legally, if that day comes).

The Basics

PGP allows you to sign, encrypt and authenticate (and certify) basically anything. This covers numerous activities such as:

To get the full benefit of PGP, you need to keep your master key safe – as if that is compromised, you lose nearly all the benefits of using it in the first place. Obviously the greater your personal need for operations security, the higher the risks of somebody targeting your key. The PGP system was designed to easily protect your information, even from threats like nation states, so much of the advice you will see on PGP is uncompromising – and is focused on how to maximise security.

In practice, few of us are in need of Edward Snowden levels of security – although if your opsec is strong (especially for journalists), you might be more likely to have a high security source trust you with their leaks or tips.

Generating a Master Key

Already we are faced here with options, and I think this is what puts off most people right from the start. You really need to use the command line, decide what key length (and algorithm) you are going to use, and decide where you are going to generate your key.

I chose to generate a 4096-bit RSA key.

The main options are:

I opted for the offline system, and ran into a few problems, such as my laptops WiFi card not being supported by the stock Debian live USB, and my other machine (which has cabled LAN) didn't have USB-C ports (which my YubiKey does). In the end I bought a USB-C (f) –> USB A adapter and used the LAN. This worked well, and I was able to get the packages I needed, pull the LAN cable, and then generate my key following these instructions.

The important thing is that the instructions are really precise and often if you get a step wrong, you will need to start from scratch.

I then loaded up my laptop and (having made a USB key with an encrypted partition with private keys and revocation certificate, and an un-encrypted partition with the public key, as per the guide), tried to load my public key onto my machine, so I could start using my YubiKey – which had the signing, encryption and authentication keys loaded onto it now. Sadly my public key partition didn't mount and I had already shut-down the offline system so I had to load the live disk back up install some packages again and pull the LAN cable, and then load up my encrypted partition (which did mount), and restore my keys – this is the only copy of the master key, emergency revocation key and public key – so losing that would have meant starting from scratch. Once I had fixed my issues with the backup USB key, I was able to restore my public key to my laptop, and continue.

Backing it up

Now, I had so far neglected to make any other backup of my keys other than the encrypted USB stick, and bit-rot is a genuine risk, so I also wanted to make physical backups – and so I used a tool paperkey to print them using my live USB, and restoring keys from the encrypted USB, and obviously this time I also needed to install printer drivers and things. Technically printers are a risk too, so for the ultra-paranoid you might want to either not have a backup and risk getting locked out of your own keys, or find some more reliable medium. For convenience I would have backed up my master key with a QR code tool, however the 4096 bit RSA key I generated was too big to QR – so for that I would have OCR scan it to revive the key.

Using the key

The first thing I did was submit my public key to a few keyservers which enables other users to trivially discover my public key, which is all they need to send me encrypted messages – and importantly means if I for some reason lose it, I can download it again myself. I then followed some examples of encrypting messages to myself, and decrypting them on the command line – just to try it. That all worked well.

I was initially excited to try and use my keys with ProtonMail, which has full PGP support and is my current e-mail provider, only to discover that it would require that I upload my private key the way it currently works – so I just had to leave it in a situation where I have different public keys for my email accounts in ProtonMail, and I don't really want to leave the service – but I was frustrated that I couldn't use it.

I then also got excited about Social Proofs (which is a mixture between actually verifying ownership of various accounts, and stamp collecting). I tried – it worked, and while it did ask me to optionally upload my private key, it was able to do all the “proofs”, with me signing the actions on my local machine. The purchase of Keybase by Zoom however put me off, and various practices like mounting drives and adding stuff to startup made me remove KeyBase entirely from my system – unfortunately they just don't seem to have managed to maintain trust, respect and sufficient usage for their (originally noble goals) to pan out in the long run. I did like their idea though.

Next I tried a distributed social proof tool called KeyOxide – here are my proofs (should you wish to contact me). KeyOxide is less automated than Keybase, doesn't have file sharing and private messaging, but it also doesn't need you to create an account or upload anything, doesn't need apps, and its proof system works well.

Of course, social proofs and identities matched to your cryptographic identity are not for people flying under the radar – but it is a mistake that cryptography is only for those people. I'm happy that I have a way to prove that I am who I say I am online, and therefore disavow any attempts to impersonate me.

Setting up commit signing

Signing commits is pretty easy, and simply requires that you point git to a public key file, and tell it to sign all commits in the config. Then you'll need your YubiKey to commit anything, which will also prompt you for a pin unlock the first time each session (if you don't want that, pull the YubiKey after each commit). Then you just need to upload your commit on Github, and hey-presto, all your commits show as signed and verified.


So now you have a YubiKey set up with PGP keys, and therefore you can use it for SSH. You will need to set up gpg-agent, and do a little configuration, but then you can view your public key ssh-add -L and the YubiKey entry which will be suffixed with something like cardno:000123456789 – add that to the usual places (~/.ssh/authorized_keys on servers and in your Github account), and then you can start using SSH on any machine with gpg-agent simply by carrying around your YubiKey. This saves you from having a private keyfile stored on your machine, reducing your risk of the key being compromised.

Summing up

This was a lot of work, and transferring all my 2FA to YubiKeys was already quite a lot of effort, but I really wanted to see if it has gotten easier to to use PGP, and I have found that while the technical instructions are increasingly good, and the hardware keys work very reliably – it is still just too much for the average person. I got my family to move to using Signal, as the combination of e2e encryption, metadata encryption and open source gives me a significant degree of trust for our usage, and the barrier of entry is dramatically lower. Of course, you then are using a centralised service on a smart phone, which means that you are not necessarily safe from law enforcement or nation states who could probably gain access to your phone through other means such as known exploits, if they had reason to – but you are also safer from bulk data collection and metadata collection.

I personally will continue to use my offline key generated subkeys to connect to SSH, and sign commits – and I'm happy to receive encrypted messages to my public keys (including my ProtonMail ones which I attach to all my outgoing emails) but, for me this was still more of an experiment to see what it is like to set up, and one that I am uneasy about recommending to anyone who is not very technical or doesn't have a deep personal need. I am glad that e2e encrypted apps at least have gained significant traction, and https everywhere is a major success. We are at least beginning to see widespread public adoption and usage of encryption technologies – but SmartCard stuff is simply not going to be adopted by people who don't feel that it is essential for them, and genuinely secure key generation is likely seen as tinfoil hat stuff, by the majority of the public.

As mentioned above all you need to reach me is available here, and I'm happy to receive your attempts at sending secure messages. The Free Software Foundation also has an excellent guide to PGP e-mail, which includes an e-mail bot that will help you to troubleshoot any problems you might face!